Literacy and numeracy of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in remote Australia have not improved in 20 years. A perceived gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students has masked the real gap between non-performing Indigenous remote schools and mainstream schools, laying the blame for low Indigenous achievement on ethnicity rather than on education policies. Because the causes of poor remote schooling have not been identified, government attempts to improve remote Indigenous schools have been ineffective.
The National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in 2008 shows that:
• Indigenous students in mainstream schools in Victoria, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory perform at the same literacy and numeracy levels as non-Indigenous students.
• New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, and Queensland have non-performing remote Indigenous schools. But the problems in the remote Indigenous schools of the Northern Territory are even more serious and systemic.
The Commonwealth government has increased funding for remote Indigenous education substantially, but the state and the NT governments have been unable to effect the policy changes necessary to improve remote Indigenous schools.
The NAPLAN results show that past state and territory illiteracy and non-numeracy rates have been significantly understated.
• Around 10% of all Australian children did not sit or failed to reach national minimum standards, but up to 60% of all NT children did not sit or failed the tests. This means that in many remote schools, almost 100% of Indigenous children either did not sit the tests or did not reach national minimum standards.
• NAPLAN failure rates for Indigenous children by location were 25% in remote and very remote New South Wales; 50% in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland; and 75% and more in the Northern Territory. These percentages do not include the children not sitting the tests. If children not sitting are included, failure rates rise in the states and approach 100% in the Northern Territory.
Indigenous ‘bilingual’ programs have become contentious because they do not deliver literacy and numeracy in any language. Students must meet NAPLAN English literacy standards to be able to work and participate in society.
Australia undoubtedly has the resources to bring remote schools to mainstream standards within three years, but governments will have to take politically tough decisions to get rid of non-performing schools in this time frame.
Two steps are immediately necessary:
• NAPLAN results must be published school-by-school so that parents and remote communities can evaluate their education options and identify the causes of non-performance for each school.
• All children in remote schools, notably in the Northern Territory, must sit the forthcoming May 2009 tests for years appropriate to their age.
Bringing remote schools to mainstream standards entails three sets of measures.
• The buildings and equipment of all schools must meet mainstream standards. There must be electric services, water, toilet blocks, and furnishings for all enrolled students and for staff. Books, DVDs and other teaching aids must be made available. All schools must be cleaned regularly and maintained properly.
• Mainstream curriculums must be introduced and all classes must be taught by qualified teachers. An emphasis on ESL teaching is essential. Assistant teachers must be trained to national teaching standards before taking classes, or be employed as teachers’ aides.
• Mainstream administrative rules must govern staffing ratios, enrolling children, maintaining attendance records, scheduling classes, assigning playground duty, and ensuring that children are driven in registered vehicles by licensed drivers
Bringing schools to mainstream standards requires the immediate transformation of 44 Homeland Learning Centres in the Northern Territory into schools. If the numbers of children are not sufficient for a school, and if distance education is not practicable, children will have to be bussed or boarded, or parents will have to move to larger centres during term time.
Australia wide the following steps are essential:
• All children must be taught English from pre-school. It is up to parents and communities to decide whether they want to teach their children their natal languages and cultural traditions at home, or whether they want natal languages also taught at school. Learning English is not optional in Australia.
• The hours of the school day, days of the week, and weeks of the year must not be eroded. Children who have to catch up require extended teaching hours.
• Public and private funding should be withdrawn from festivals and other activities held during term until they are rescheduled to vacations. Extended funerals cannot be an excuse for missing school.
• Welfare quarantining or incentives for school attendance are desirable, but if they do not work, truancy laws must be implemented.
• School choice contributes to the maintenance and elevation of education standards. Departments of education should welcome independent school initiatives.
Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes has worked in the economics of development for many years, including a period of senior management at the World Bank followed by membership of the United Nations Committee for Development Planning. She returned to Australia to a chair in economics at the Australian National University, where she was also the executive director of the National Centre of Development Studies. She was the Distinguished Fellow of the Economics Society of Australia in 2004. Professor Hughes is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, where she is working on the south Pacific as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander development.
Mark Hughes is an independent researcher.